What-If, What-Could, What Might-Have-Been

Cass Sunstein has a review in The New Republic of Richard Evans’s new book, Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History. Evans is, to put it mildly, not a great fan of the counterfactual exercise in history, particularly as engaged in by historians.

With respect to history’s might-have-beens, he agrees with Thompson and Oakeshott: “In the effort to understand, counterfactuals aren’t any real use at all.” He laments that “fantasizing is now all the rage, and threatens to overwhelm our perceptions of what really happened in the past, pushing aside our attempts to explain it.” He insists that some things are “speculation, not history,” and generally uselesspossibly fun, but a distraction from serious business.

There is a long and treasured strand of anti-counterfactual history in the academy, the most eminently quotable example of such being E. H. Carr’s famous dismissal of alternate history as a mere “parlor game” in What Is History? Of course, Carr himself was a determinist who was solidly convinced that history could not have unfolded any other way (the “Morpheus school” of events, perhaps). Evans, on the whole, seems to fall into that camp as well, though as Sunstein points out, he “seems to be fascinated, perhaps in spite of himself, by the subject.”

Part of Evans’s unease with counterfactual history is that in a way, it is itself overly deterministic. That is to say, a single changed historical variable might produce a wildly different result, and that history is contingent on the “great man” or, to quote a number of books, on that one fateful day, be it June 28, December 7, or September 11.

In his account, historians are made uneasy by “monocausal 
explanations.” They “prefer to pile up causes until events are overdetermined, that is, they have so many causes that if one did not operate the others would, and the event in question would still have occurred.”

But to consider history in any form is essentially to allow for the fact that events occurred instead of another subset of events. After all, if there was only one set of possibly outcomes, why would we still care or study such events today? Famed World War II historian Richard Overy wrote a book that outlined the conditions that led to Allied victory in the war. But even while attempting to show the precariousness on which the Allied cause rested, he racks up an impressive string of advantages: some significant economic superiority (more specifically, the “sheer speed and scale of American rearmament”), unity within and among the Allies, a demonstrable sense of moral righteousness, and even organizational differences (e.g., an Axis inability to make full use of their own resources and production capacity). The gulf between Axis and Allies, particularly by the end of the war, was massive. But to look solely at that ignores the vast struggle that led to that balance of power, and belies the fact that this large number of factors in the Allies’ favor still required several years just to regain the strategic initative, much less win the war.

History, of course, has a lively following today, and so too does counterfactual history. My undergraduate professor, Fred Smoler, has periodically taught a class since my senior year called “The Music of What Happens” (PDF, p. 72), which is an exploration in both historical and literary terms of the alternate histories that have been and are being written today. This is also a roundabout way of saying that not all counterfactual works lie squarely in the realm of “history” as we know it and statistical analysis. Often, the outlandish settings of alternate history fiction are merely a backdrop for some other story (but which serve as way to explore that setting). Robert Harris’s Fatherland and works of literature like Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union feature a noir-esque, hard-boiled detective narrative as a familiar means of operating in an otherwise-unfamiliar world. (Even other world-building fiction like China Miéville’s The City & the City use a detective story as the foreground plot.)

I will admit, though, that in an article of this length I was surprised not to find any reference to Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History, which still stands as one of the great reasons for alternate history to exist. “Whig history” is the protestant/progressive tendency to view the present as a logical extension of the past, inexorably moving forwards towards a bright future, which represents merely another point on the same continuum.To quote Butterfield:

It is part and parcel of the whig interpretation of history that it studies the past with reference to the present … Through this system of immediate reference to the present day, historical personages can easily and irresistibly be classed into the men who furthered progress and the men who tried to hinder it; so that a handy rule of thumb exists by which the historian can select and reject, and can make his points of emphasis.

The real problem with the whigs and the determinists is that they have denied the past any chance of their own agency. Instead, they characterize history as a series of preconceived steps that of course have brought us to this very moment. But the strength and appeal of counterfactual history is that it can restore a sense of contingency to historical actors, and to better understand the world as it was (and is): it was a series of choices to make, and the present is the result of those actions not chosen.

Different scenarios will have different utility to different thinkers: whether one cares about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ or an Al Gore victory in 2000 or an industrial China in the sixteenth-century depends greatly on one’s interests and research and career and available free time. But as it sounds like Richard Evans eventually comes around to thinking, albeit unwittingly, even just by disagreeing with a counterfactual, you lend the scenario some degree of credence: things might have happened very differently, indeed. And while this likely is not the best of all possible worlds, one can easily imagine a world much worse.

 

Operation Tannenbaum, Part IV

It is now November 9 1940. The bitterness of the Battle for Switzerland is something that will live with all Swiss and those German soldiers who participated. Out of the 800,000 Swiss under arms on September 24, 120,000 did not reach the redoubt. Only 15,486 of these soldiers were taken prisoner. In fact, there are more French and Polish prisoners in the German laagers then there are Swiss!

The Zytglogge in Bern, Switzerland.

Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, commander of Heeresgruppe C.

Guisan and his staff are secure in the Redoubt, with the Germans unable to penetrate the massive defense works. However, the Germans are rather unwilling to commit so many forces to the strategically irrelevant alpine region. In the areas at higher altitude, the first snow has fallen, tabling any large offensives until the spring of 1941.

No less than 20 divisions are in occupied Switzerland, and tensions between occupier and occupied are running extremely high. Just as in Czechoslovakia, all popular gatherings have been banned. Weapons and wireless sets owned by private citizens have been ordered to be turned into authorities, including hunting rifles.[1] Heeresgruppe C has not been redeployed to the eastern front for a Russian offensive, and Wilhelm von Leeb has established his headquarters in occupied Bern for the winter.

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Operation Tannenbaum, Part III

While the odds were against any sort of meaningful Swiss victory in the event of invasion, such a German offensive was equally unlikely in the early years of the war. By 1943, the possibility of a successful German invasion had dwindled to virtually nothing, as the Swiss Army had expanded and modernized to a point that would make Tannenbaum a suicidal mission. This begs the question: why, then, would Hitler ever have chosen to invade Switzerland? Let us proceed with our counterfactual under the following premises.

It is now September 15. The unrestricted bombing campaign authorized by Churchill four months ago has been relatively unsuccessful. Fewer than 25 percent of the bombs dropped are landing within five miles of their intended targets, and only 30 percent have landed in any built-up areas.[1] However, this has had an unintended benefit. Having disguised the few industrial plants manufacturing jewel bearings, the Germans were fairly certain of their security. However, in a truly ironic case, this ended up being more costly, as the plants have been disproportionately hit by the British bombs. Jewel bearings are a main component of bombsights, and without them, Hitler is reluctant to press his luck in the Battle of Britain, much less Operation Sealion.

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Operation Tannenbaum, Part I

The military picture on the Franco-Swiss border, June 26, 1940.

France was defeated. So too were Poland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium. Austria and Czechoslovakia had been incorporated into the Greater German Reich. Great Britain stood alone in her ‘splendid isolation,’ and the fascist regime of Francisco Franco held sway over the Iberian Peninsula. In June of 1940, all that remained, surrounded by enemies, was the Swiss Confederation.

Hitler called it a “pimple on the face of Europe.”[1] In the heady days of victory for the Third Reich, a move against the alpine republic seemed a great possibility – almost inevitable, even. Even before the Fall of France was made official, plans were being drawn up for ‘Operation Tannenbaum,’ the German invasion of Switzerland. Yet Hitler’s attention was soon drawn towards Britain, and eventually the plan fell by the wayside as he began focusing attention on his Bolshevik neighbor to the East.

But…what if? What if Hitler had decided that the conquest of that mountainous pimple was indeed worth the effort and manpower? What if Tannenbaum had been more than just idle words and an OKW plan? If Hitler had embarked on the ultimate folly, the results would have been disastrous for the Swiss – and the Nazis.

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The Bombing of Auschwitz

A consolidated B-24 Liberator of the 15th A.F. releases its bombs on the railyards at Muhldorf, Germany on 19 March 1945.

Via Blog Them Out of the Stone Age:

What if the Allies had bombed Auschwitz? That’s the counterfactual Mark Grimsley poses in his brief, but intriguing piece for World War II magazine (article at BTOSA). As he admits, “most ‘what if’ scenarios begin with a plausible rewrite of a historical event. The bombing of Auschwitz does not have this characteristic.” A strike on the death camps was not seriously discussed at high levels, much less considered a viable option.

It was certainly possible to launch such an attack:

The Auschwitz complex was well within range of the U.S. Fifteenth Air Force, based at Foggia, Italy … By the summer of 1944, escapees from Birkenau had supplied the Allies with detailed, accurate information about the facility. The crematoria and gas chambers could be readily identified in aerial photographs.

Owing to political considerations and the diversion of “considerable air support” that targeting the camps would require, a raid was never launched. Debate has raged for thirty years whether or not it was a moral imperative to attack the camps, but simply put, it was absolutely within Allied strategic air capabilities.

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Whither Arabic Science?

It’s widespread knowledge that many scientific and mathematical fundamentals can trace their lineage to the ‘golden age’ of the Arab world. Our numeral system, refinements in geometry and astrology, and other stepping-stones on the path to modern science originated in the Middle East between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. Of course, this period of

Austin Dacey has written an article called “The Decline of the Decline of Arabic Science,” in which he attempts to address the ‘withering’ characterization of Arab-Islamic science. According to the traditional description, the cutting-edge nature of Islamic thinkers began to peter out, until the West overtook the East by leaps and bounds. Instead, he writes, there was nothing preordaining our current state of physical knowledge.

A sort of ‘Whig interpretation‘ thus explains the Arab ‘failure’ to discover what the West eventually did. Happenstance, coincidence, and chance are the real underpinnings of modern science (and this actually begins to make even more sense when considering the chaotic behavior of sub-atomic particles and quantum mechanics). Which raises an even more intriguing question: in what other direction could science have gone?

The Coming Naval War with China?

There’s a new article making the usual rounds, from the Q1 2010 issue of Orbis. James Kraska’s “How the United States Lost the Naval War of 2015″ [abstract only] is definitely an interesting read; it’s one of those future/alternate histories examining, essentially, how we might get there.

Kraska hypothesizes a Chinese missile attack on the USS George Washington while “conducting routine patrols” off of China’s coast. China immediately denies all responsibility and in fact aids in the rescue of several hundred sailors, out of the original complement of 4,000. In addition to the international perception of China as uninvolved (much less the aggressor), the United States is blamed for the ecological disaster caused by the George Washington‘s nuclear propulsion system.

China’s ability to conduct such an operation is chalked up to a combination of naval spending cuts, the reassignment of “an entire generation” of officers to COIN and conventional desert warfare in the Middle East and central Asia, and “the environmentalists in charge of strategic U.S. oceans policy.”

‘Ridiculous’ is certainly the first word that comes to mind, and commentators like Thomas Ricks certainly don’t disagree, but there’s a small point to extract from Kraska’s article. His assumption that the increasing budget and growing naval aviation programs of the PLAN will directly challenge the USN for control of East Asia is a little much. He’s right on the nose, however, with the specter of asymmetrical naval warfare.

Robert Kaplan wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly a few years back, “How We Would Fight China.” It covers a lot of this in great detail. The psychological impact of asymmetry at sea is particularly telling – Kaplan notes that “the effect of a single Chinese cruise missile hitting a U.S. carrier…would be politically and psychologically catastrophic, akin to al-Qaeda’s attacks on the twin towers.” It’s hard to talk about China without getting melodramatic, apparently.

Perhaps the greatest lesson to take away from all this would be: do we still need carriers at all?